Global Observer

In India, browse the web through texts

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DELHI -- India has nearly a billion mobile phone users, but only a fraction of those have Web access, whether on their phones or on computers. Start-up Innoz is bridging that gap.

Founders of SMS Gyan

DELHI -- In 2009, four students dropped out of an engineering college in a small town in southern India to pursue their dream. They wanted to channel the vast sea of knowledge floating on the Internet through text messages to millions of people who don’t have access to the web.

Now their creation, called SMS Gyan (gyan means knowledge), a search engine available on mobile phones, has 120 million users in India, the Middle East and Africa submitting over five million queries every day. And their company Innoz Technologies has expanded to 45 employees, and it earned $2.5 million worth of revenue last year.

The company’s founders say that Innoz is set to become the world’s largest offline search engine in 2015, with projections of 10 million monthly unique users and more than 55 million searches per day.

With 120 million Internet users, India has the third-largest number of Internet users in the world. But this pales in comparison to its 900 million mobile users, out of which less than 80 million currently use Internet on their mobile phones.

“There is a huge gap between mobile phone users and internet users,” said Abhinav Sree, a founding member of the company. “But so many people who don’t use the Internet still want information about things like weather, transport, sports and restaurants.”

Sree, 25, explained that when the Innoz team members were in college, they didn’t own smartphones, and they were often not able to quickly access information unless they were sitting at a computer or laptop connected to the internet.

The four college students, then between the ages of 21-22, inspired by the founders of Google and Apple, left college to put their idea of a mobile phone search engine into action.

Sree remembers the moment of truth quite distinctly. He recalled how they had to choose between taking exams in 2009, or take a train to Ahmedabad to participate in a “technology accelerator program” for which their startup had been selected.

They took the train. “It was a split-second decision and since then it’s been a roller coaster,” he said.

While their idea was quickly recognized as a winner in the innovation and technology circles of India, the team came close to giving it up because it wasn’t making money.

AFP reported last week that Indian start-ups are presently facing a slowdown in investments. The country saw venture capital investment drop from $1.09 billion for 222 deals in 2011 to $762 million for 206 deals last year.

Even back in 2009-2010, the Innoz team found it a challenge to find financial backing.

But then they had a spot of luck. During a chance meeting in a Delhi cafe, a professional from Air Tel, India’s largest service provider, took to the idea.

Air Tel made the service available to its users in India (it has total of 230 million in 19 countries) who can text questions to 55444 for one rupee, or two cents.

Mohammed Hisamuddin, 26, another co-founder, said that Innoz had designed a special algorithm that crawls their Internet partner sites like Wikipedia and Zomato for information, and then optimizes the most relevant bits into a text-response of 480-characters to make it user friendly.

Other service providers in India quickly followed.

In fact, the team members explained, promotion of SMS Gyan was done based on the interest of people from different states of India. In Assam, where the music scene is big, customers were encouraged to search for lyrics. In Karnataka, the search emphasis was on cricket.

As the project took off, the four young entrepreneurs also experienced changes in their own lives. As Sree puts it, “We went from four guys in jeans and T-shirts to wearing suits and ties for meetings with corporate executives.”

Another founder member, Deepak Ravindran, 25, explains that this mobile search engine also benefits Internet companies to reach out to those who can’t access them online.

“Most of the Internet companies use our platform to bridge the communication between the offline and online world,” he said, referring to Wikipedia, Twitter, Foursquare, Microsoft Bing and Google.

Hisamuddin further explains that Innoz acts as a kind of evangelist for Internet companies by introducing their customers to sites like Wikipedia and Facebook even before they have seen accessed them online.

“So many people have come to know Wikipedia through us,” he said. “And once they start using the Internet then they will already know about these sites and visit them.”

Ravindran said that their company has also launched a feature called “verified apps,” which showcases apps certified by Internet companies like Wikipedia, Facebook, Wolfram, Alpha and Evernote.

SMS Gyan users can update their Facebook status message and timeline, or get Twitter updates from their favorite celebrities through texts even without Internet.

Innoz is also providing offline access to photo and video searches, and further provides links with search results for customers to download digital content.

Hisamuddin also points out that even for mobiles phones that offer Internet access, net connectivity is often so slow in India that its untenable for many people to make use of it especially when traveling in rural areas.

So what’s next? “Discovery,” they say.

Currently, the SMS Gyan reach in India is dependent on promotion by mobile service providers. Now, Innoz is speaking to manufacturers of handsets to have an inbuilt SMS Gyan application to dramatically increase its discovery by people.

So far so good, but the four entrepreneurs are aware of the limited longevity of their creation as Internet use through smartphones and other devices will naturally keep rising. By that time, Sree says, they would be recognized as innovators, and it will easier to launch their next creation.

Any regrets about not finishing college? “No,” they say.

Sree said that Innoz had become a big hirer of students from their old college, and professors who had once given them an earful now send words of encouragement for their venture.

PHOTO: Courtesy Mohammed Hisamuddin

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Betwa Sharma

Correspondent

Betwa Sharma has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Time, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, AOL News, GlobalPost, The Huffington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Indian Express and The Tribune. She previously worked as the United Nations/New York correspondent for the Press Trust of India, the country's largest newswire. She holds degrees from the National Law Institute University in India, Cambridge University and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in Delhi, India. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure